Justifying Human Enhancement: The Accumulation of Biocultural Capital (2013)


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Miah, A. (2013) Justifying Human Enhancement: The Accumulation of Biocultural Capital, in More, M. & Vita-More, N. The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology, and Philosophy of the Human Future, Wiley-Blackwell. MORE INFO

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Extract of my Chapter

The argument on behalf of biocultural capital claims that the pursuit of human enhancements is consistent with other ways in which people modify their lifestyles and is analogous in principle to buying a new mobile phone, learning a language, or exercising. It is a process of acquiring ideas, goods, assets, and experiences that distinguish one person from another, either as an individual or as a member of a community. While one might – and should - scrutinize the merits of such individual choices, we should recognize the limits of this task. Furthermore, the argument for biocultural capital considers that it is unreasonable for enhancement choices to be imposed upon individuals by the state. The normative transhumanist concept of morphological freedom emphasizes this prohibition. (More, 1993; Sandberg 2001) While general consensus on enhancements might have legal force, they will not necessarily have universal persuasive value – not everybody would wish to be tall, stronger, or whatever it may be - since enhancements only confer positive value within particular cultural contexts. As such, the precise value attached to any particular enhancement cannot be assumed to be a shared, universal good, particularly where choices of enhancements involve a trade-off.

The argument from biocultural capital explains that the designation of a biological modification as a human enhancement does not correspond with some prescribed or abstract value claim. There is no necessary “good” that, in itself, can be objectively identified to justify (or reject) enhancements. For instance, if I were to enhance the efficiency of my digestive system to allow me to assimilate foods that are generally shown to be unhealthy, it is difficult to argue that this is a tangible enhancement, other than through its allowing me to satisfy the desire of always wanting to eat foods that I find tasty but which would, otherwise, be unhealthy. While such a modification would be beneficial to me, it is unlikely to withstand the scrutiny of those who have no such desire. Such a choice also faces the criticism that one’s taste cannot develop in a positive sense if one closes off the potential to find value in experiencing other tastes. So, if I were a twelve year old and really like McDonald’s food, I might enjoy enhancing my metabolism to assimilate such food, rather than to treat it like junk food. In doing so, by failing to choose alternative foods, I also restrict the possibility of developing tastes for other foods.[7] Yet, again, it seems premature to panic too much about such a prospect. Rather, it may emerge that one’s taste develops alongside such new alternatives to consumption and that moderation will thus emerge.

Importantly, and as enshrined in the idea of morphological freedom, this argument on behalf of human enhancements does not extend to the freedom to modify others – for example, through genetically engineering embryos. Rather, this argument presents an initial position as to why certain obstacles towards human enhancement may be overcome by acknowledging the limits of concerns over rationalizing medical resources and avoiding a slippery slope towards undesirable circumstances, I have endeavored to explain the value of pursuing self-regarding, biological enhancements and, as such, to suggest why such freedom of choice should not be withheld.

In conclusion, asking why we should enhance ourselves limits the discussion prematurely. It prescribes a particular kind of moral justification, which would explain a choice that makes sense only in the particular case. However, treating such actions as micro-ethical processes, contrasts with the macro-ethical task of regulating the commercial and non-medical use of such interventions. In short, via this argument, one cannot offer a good reason for why all people should enhance themselves in a specific way, since each reason would require embedding the clause within a particular context that another individual might not deem to be valuable at all. So, understanding the value of improving attention span or enhancing sexual function would require understanding the specific context that give rise to such an interest. Instead, one may give reasons for why a motorcyclist might value an enhancement to protect the durability of her head, or why a ballerina might welcome enhanced strength in specific parts of her body, or why a mathematician or a chess player should value cognitive enhancements. These are all sensible human enhancements for particular kinds of people, but are not generally good enhancements for all kinds of people.

The rise of a privately funded human enhancement market and the possibility of commodifying life are each relevant moral concerns that should concern the governance of such industries.  While a publicly-funded system for human enhancements may be preferable to a privately-funded one, areas of human desire are always likely to outweigh the limited funds available to accommodate such desires on a nationally funded system, even if one can aspire to a certain level of social care throughout a population. As such, it is sensible to presume that a transhuman future will be brought about within a commercial structure, though as argued earlier there are reasons to presume that some forms of enhancement will eventually ease the burden on a national health care system, by ensuring more people are less vulnerable to common illnesses.